My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Russell Rowland. He recently published his third novel, High and Inside, with Bangtail Press. Novelist Kim Barnes had this to say about High and Inside: “You don’t have to love baseball to love this story about one (aging) boy of summer who is brought to a bittersweet reckoning with his past. I found myself laughing, cringing, and knuckling down...” Rowland's first novel, In Open Spaces, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and made the San Francisco Chronicle's bestseller list. The Watershed Years, the sequel, was a finalist for the High Plains Book Award for Fiction in 2008. He also co-edited West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West, an anthology of original essays about the modern Western identity. Rowland has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University, and he lives in Billings, Montana, where he does private consultation with other writers and teaches. Click here to visit his blog.
My Multiple First Times
My first publication
My first publication was my first novel, In Open Spaces. It was eleven years after I finished writing it, so it was a huge thrill, not to mention validation that my hard work had finally paid off. I had written three other novels in the meantime, and had given up on this first one, so when it was raised from the dead, it was a huge boost to my confidence. And of course the opportunities are too numerous to mention, but the best part has been continuing to get published and to actually have the opportunity to work with other writers. I get a huge kick out of teaching and working privately with other writers. And I learn so much.
My first editor
This is a very complicated question because the editor who bought In Open Spaces didn’t last long. The book was originally bought by William Morrow, and Harpercollins bought them out six months later, while we were in the middle of editing the book. She was among those who lost their jobs in the merger, and for several months after that I didn’t know whether my book was even going to get published. Eventually Harper did agree to publish it, but I was assigned to five different editors by the time it came out. They kept leaving the company, although there was no indication that my book was the reason. The one who finally edited the book was very good to work with, but she also left the company, a week before the book came out.
My biggest mentor was C. Michael Curtis. When I was at the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, I did an internship at The Atlantic Monthly, and Mike, who was the fiction editor there for decades, showed a great interest in my work. He read every story I wrote and gave me feedback. When I started writing In Open Spaces, I showed him some early chapters, and he offered to help me find a publisher for it. He wasn’t able to do that, but the fact that someone of his stature believed in it was another huge boost of confidence.
My first failure as a writer
The biggest mistake I’ve made in my career was turning down an offer from Harper for my second novel. I had the first few chapters written, and my new editor there (number seven) made a very nice offer on it. I met with him and my agent in New York, and we discussed the offer in person, and they both suggested that if we waited until I finished the book, they might be able to get an even better offer. I got greedy, and turned down the offer. By the time I finished it, the editor was gone, and the new one turned it down cold. I’ve been trying to recover ever since. It almost felt like I was shoved out of the major publisher club and once that happens, everyone assumes there’s a reason for it. But the reason was that I was a bonehead. It was a real eye-opener about the publishing industry.
My first review
This just shows what a bumpkin I was. Before my book came out, I got a call from my agent saying I had gotten a starred review in Publishers Weekly. I had no idea what he was talking about. I think I had heard of PW, but I didn’t know what a starred review was, and I was very confused that a review had come out when the book wasn’t even released yet. I didn’t have a clue what a big deal this was. It turned out to be a great way to get that book launched out into the world.